One Dirty Magazine
So You Want to Be a Dirtbag Trail Runner? The author pounding out a few trail miles while living on the road. Photo by Christian Pondella

So You Want to Be a Dirtbag Trail Runner?

5 expert tips on how to live on the road and run the country’s best trails.

Morgan Sjogren April 13th, 2017

It’s 11:30 p.m. and after 30 minutes circling around the full campgrounds in Utah’s Zion National Park, I face reality and leave to sleep in the back of my Jeep somewhere outside the park. I pull into a discrete spot, carbo load with some bedtime pop-tarts for the morning’s run up the Angel’s Landing and West Rim trails and tuck myself into my sleeping bag.

People tell me all the time, “You’re living the dream!” and “I wish I had done that!”

And they are right—I am and they should have.

It’s liberating to wake up at the trailhead of my choice on any given day, run a new trail, and then spend a few hours driving to another state instead of watching TV, and filling my soul with new experiences rather than material possessions.

But for every epic trail pic posted on Instagram, there are challenges, e.g. the night I locked myself out of the Jeep and froze my ass off. A moment of panic every time my vehicle/house makes an unusual sound in the middle of the desert. Pulling into another McDonald’s parking lot to take a conference call or submit an article on deadline. The time I won a coconut cream pie at a trail race and ate it for six meals straight because I don’t have refrigeration and it saved me cooking time.

dirtbag trail runner
Dirtbag lifestyle comes in all shapes and sizes, some more glamorous than others. The author’s yellow jeep parked next to a Mercedes Sprinter van. Photo by Morgan Sjogren

Whether you’re you’re looking to be a full-time dirtbag trail runner or want to weekend warrior to the trailheads of your dreams, I humbly offer these basic running-bum road rules:

 

1. Pack Light

The vagabond life requires simplicity—I can only fit so much into my Jeep Wrangler and still have enough room to fit my 5-foot-8-inch frame into the dog-sized bed that is built into the back (actually it is a dog bed).

My essentials include running clothes, too many running shoes (to accommodate varied terrain types), maps, my laptop, toiletries, cooking supplies, food and my camping gear. That’s it.

I remember giving my friend Jenn Shelton (who also lives in her van) crap for only owning one pair of orange sweatpants. I understand why now—there is no room for more than one pair of casual pants. So I have a pair of very practical tiger bell bottoms.

 

2. Sleep on It

Whether you have a decked-out Sprinter van, vintage VW bus or plan to car camp, you need to make sure that your sleeping arrangement ensures quality sleep. When you’re putting in big miles and vert, recovery is everything. Admittedly, life on the road can make this more challenging.

Invest in a quality pillow, eye mask (or pull a buff over your eyes), sleeping bag and sleeping pad. If your vehicle has room for a bed, splurge on a Tempur-Pedic mattress (you’re saving tons of money on rent anyways, your back will thank you).

 

3. Stay Clean

It’s called dirtbag life for a reason. I don’t shower everyday; it’s just reality. I carry jugs of water and Dr. Bronner’s soap for “sponge baths” and Action Wipes (which are bigger than standard baby wipes and more sudsy) for post-run wipe downs. Quality lotion, hot-pink nail polish and a tiny vile of essential oils help me feel relaxed and pampered (guys, don’t be shy—you’d like this too)!

When my pigtails start to turn into dreadlocks, I seek out shower options, which can include a YMCA or public pool (usually they charge a few dollars to shower only), creeks or lakes (warmer months and desperation) and visiting friends when I’m in their areas. Trail running isn’t exactly a clean sport and good hygiene will keep your immune system and morale functioning at much higher levels.

The dirtbag life affords some spectacular views. Photo by Morgan Sjogren

 

4. Fuel the Engine

The ramen trap is an easy one to fall into when you don’t have a full-size kitchen to prep meals. However, you will get sick of it and you need far more nutrients to fuel your running day after day.

I travel with a small Coleman gas stove and camp kitchen set-up: one pot (which I usually eat my meals directly out of), one set of silverware, a good knife, tiny cutting board, pour-over coffee filter and a tin mug.

My go-to meals are basic (aka 50 shades of burritos), real-food based and provide essential macro nutrients (protein, carbs, fat), vitamins, minerals, and they actually taste good. My favorites include tuna wraps (add pickle relish, shredded cheese, avocado, greens, sliced carrots and bell peppers), black-bean burritos (with cheese and avocado), pre-cooked sausages (cook quicker and easy to store) with sauerkraut (they say it’s good for recovery) and pasta loaded with steamed veggies. When I really go to the well on a big run, I reward myself and eat at a restaurant to ensure I get enough calories and feel satisfied.

 

5. Go for It

Don’t hold back! The dirtbag dream is literally being able to run on amazing trails day after day that most people must block out vacation time for. If you can dream it, you can probably run it. If you manage your time and budget wisely, you will be amazed at how many incredible trails you can have at your footsteps.

In the past month alone, I have run in Zion National Park (UT), the Grand Canyon (AZ), Buckskin Gulch (UT), Moab (UT), Bear’s Ears (UT), Sedona (AZ), Flagstaff (AZ), Mammoth Lakes (CA), Durango (CO), Sand Canyon (CO), Las Vegas (NV) and Death Valley (CA).

As I write this, I am about the hit the road from Durango to Moab. Sometimes it’s hard to leave places that I am just beginning to know, but then I remember that this mobile lifestyle affords me the opportunity to return to these places when the time is right. I can deal with a little dirt, cramped quarters, crusty running socks and cold burritos, because the feeling I get each time I step foot on a new trail is clean, shiny, warm and ripe with possibilities.

Morgan Sjogren runs wild with words anywhere she can get to with her running shoes and a pen! Follow her adventures, writing and trail racing on Instagram  @running_bum_ and her blog: therunningbum.com.

Leave A Comment

22 Comments on "So You Want to Be a Dirtbag Trail Runner?"

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Margaret
Guest

Thanks, good advice. I have the sprinter van lined up for an eclipse escape in August

Rachel
Guest

I really want to know how you manage to sleep in your Jeep? 🙂 I have a Wrangler and can’t imagine getting a decent night sleep in it. So whats the secret? Curl up in a fetal position? 🙂

Justin
Guest

I’ve built an elevated “bed” similar to hers shown in the picture, it works quite well for me. I however have the four door which makes it a little easier to stretch my 6′ 2 frame.

Collette Schoenegge
Guest

Woo hoo!!!! I just got back from Red River Gorge in Kentucky for 3 days of camping and running!! I am this close to finally getting a Ford Transit Connect to turn into a camper….although, I would love an old ice cream truck, but the van is more practical!! ???????? Thanks so much for writing this!!!!

John Brew
Guest

Two useful things I’ve found useful. First, when you need the Internet and some peace; find a local library. There also a good way to get local advice. Second, if you’re doing this a lot, consider joining a nationwide gym. I just got back from a week in Utah, was able to use my (chain) gym to shower, do some weights, use the hydromassage and showers. It was nice and membership cost me $20 a month.

Eric Singleton
Guest

Step 6: Be a trust fund baby and waste years of your life not contributing to society or your on legacy. A dirt bag without a trust fund will just end up with a minimum wage job and no future and no adult friends.

Trevor
Guest

Or, be a miserable troll who lives a life of resentment and bitterness.

Eric Singleton
Guest

I was a sponsored outdoor athlete for 5 years and I’m speaking from experience and direct interaction of people living lives with unrealistic projections. My best climbing and running have come from a steady routine, comfortable house and a good diet. I’m not a troll just because I don’t support things I know are not realistic without private funding.

shawn
Guest
No, you are a troll for posting such a negative comment in the first place, and then especially for cursing at the person who replied to you. Just really unnecessary. If you had simply made your comment about your past challenges of living the dirt-bag lifestyle (with or without sponsorship) you could have been part of a healthy dialogue. But, you decided to be a troll instead and make assumptions about people and their trust funds. Everyone contributes to society in different ways. In this case, the author made me realize that I can/should easily get out more this summer… Read more »
Eric Singleton
Guest
Oh god forbid anyone say anything negative about this useless article. I’m not making assumptions about people. I’m listing facts of life. How does a dirtbag by food, gas, car insurance, camp fees, health insurance etc. I never attacked the author, I attacked the stupid article and stupid people that feel this is real writing. And as far as cussing. I’m an adult and I can use any word I like. Sorry if your super liberal vegan children with gluten allergies are offended. I’m also not trolling because I posted my full name. Not some short handle. You are free… Read more »
shawn
Guest

Most of the articles on this site are fluff pieces. So what? Just enjoy them or ignore them. If you are somehow offended by liberals, vegans, or people with gluten issues, just find another site to troll.
P.S. No, I’m not a liberal.

Eric Singleton
Guest

And I’m not a Troll as my identity. I just love making sensitive freedom fighters like yourself waste you personal time defending whatever it is you’re defending. Fluff. Life and most of people are just Fluff. I like to point out the weak so we all know where they are. Thanks for raising your hand.

Eric Singleton
Guest

Sorry for the typos. This should really have an edit button.

shawn
Guest

Whatever, Troll.

Joe
Guest

Both of you fuck yourselves.

Winning
Guest

Or you do it for a few years, then use the experience to follow another passion that might earn you some money, put a few years into a start up, sell it, retire early, and go back to the dirt bag lifestyle.

You never know what life will bring.

jrouta
Guest

Really Eric, – -how are you “contributing to your “on” (sic) legacy”? By sending bad grammar replies. ?? I doubt Ms Sjogren is too busy worrying about her legacy – -she is living her life through the experiences she wants to have. Seems like a pretty good legacy to me.

Eric Singleton
Guest
Yeh there isn’t an edit button on the comment box. People make mistakes. Like living a life based on what the media portrays. As a sponsored outdoor athlete for two big brands I know the truth because I lived the dirt bag lifestyle for 10 years without private funding and it’s nearly impossible to be healthy and live that way. I’ve climbed and run much better results from having a steady routine, nice bed and steady diet that comes with living like a functioning adult. I’m all for people 25 and under living like this but for a 35 year… Read more »
Eric Singleton
Guest

PS. You’re a cunt.

Reg
Guest

Morgan, great article! I am at the dream stage. Any tips about safety would be appreciated also. Like do you sleep in the Jeep with all the windows and hatch closed?

Jammy Rastah
Guest
I’ve spent 13 years living in my car throughout Arizona, Utah and Colorado. (I own a house now). Here are some helpful hints. (1) Obey all signs, “No Trespassing” or “No Camping” etc. otherwise you might end up with a knock on your window and a ticket. (2) Trust your instincts and your common sense. If a place doesn’t feel safe keep driving. (3) If on a jeep road really assess the terrain before proceeding so you don’t get stuck. (4) I would grocery shop almost every day and kept a small cooler with ice or dry ice for perishables.… Read more »
Nikki
Guest

Thanks for writing this article. I love reading about your adventures! I’m twice your age and about to retire, leaning toward selling the house and going mobile. My roomie and I camp at trails whenever possible but I can’t even imagine cramming into a Jeep! We use a tent and camper shell on my faithful, 16 year old truck. I’m just in the process of replacing old camping gear. I wondered why I was cold at a race last summer. I could see stars through my 30-something year old sleeping bag!

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